Cast: GV Prakash Kumar, Aparna Balamurali, Nedumudi Venu
Director: Rajiv Menon
Midway through Rajiv Menon’s Sarvam Thaala Mayam (The magic of beats), my mind drifted to K Balachander’s Unnal Mudiyum Thambi. For one, both these films are from upper-class, dominant-caste filmmakers. And two, both films feature a beautiful song in a classical raga (primarily Sudhdha Dhanyasi in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, and Dharmavathi here) that’s rendered in a folksy style. There’s a difference, though. ‘Punjai Undu Nanjai Undu’ was sung by a man from the dominant caste — he was “diluting” his music for those who did not have access to (or the aptitude for) it. It’s a desi version of the White Saviour trope. (I don’t mean this as criticism. The film was a well-intentioned product of its times, even if its sugar-coated optimism may find bitter opposition in this tough-minded Pa Ranjith era.)
In Menon’s film (which can be seen as a bridging of the sensibilities of these two eras), the man who sings is himself from the oppressed caste. He doesn’t need the music to be “diluted” because he knows it, and he makes his living from it. His name is Johnson (a superb Kumaravel, who proves he’s a superb “song actor”, too), and he is an expert mridangam maker. Had his family’s financial situation been better, he might have pursued a career in this music, but at least, he’s still tangentially aligned with it — his instruments resonate across the loftiest stages of Carnatic music. His son, Peter (an earnest GV Prakash Kumar), has inherited his percussive talents, but he puts them to use in a very different world. He plays the drums at the release of his “thalapathy” Vijay’s movies. (He’s a crazy fan.) Sarvam Thaala Mayam is about the collision of these universes, a Big Bang that results in a new musical cosmos.
At first, Peter is mildly dismissive about his father’s profession. He doesn’t know much about that world. But one day, during a Music Academy performance, he happens to observe the legendary mridangam player Vembu Iyer from real up close, and he’s hooked. (This is surely the only time the stage of this venerable hall has been graced by a young man wearing a Vijay T-shirt.) Peter decides he wants to learn this music from this man, played by Nedumudi Venu with warmth and a welcome touch of mischief. Vembu Iyer’s rebukes to his students are hilarious (though like many people in the film, Nedumudi Venu struggles with his accent). It’s what Whiplash would have been if the instructor’s preferred mode was sarcasm instead of sadism.
I expected an Ekalavya kind of situation to develop along the following lines: Vembu Iyer would refuse to teach Peter, and the latter would learn from afar, along the way teaching Vembu Iyer a lesson or two about tolerance. But the pleasant surprise in Sarvam Thaala Mayam is that Vembu Iyer is no casteist. He’s a… music-eist. He’s no saint (he won’t play for female singers), and he dismisses modernity (reality shows on TV, classes via Skype) – but he instantly recognises and appreciates talent when he hears a drunk Peter playing on the street. So why does he, at first, refuse to accept Peter as a disciple? He thinks that someone like Peter doesn’t have the discipline to commit to the guru-shishya protocol that’s at the heart of his teaching. This is its own kind of snobbery, sure — but it isn’t entirely due to caste.
But this is no Utopia. Vembu Iyer’s assistant, Mani (Vineeth), is casteist. He resents Peter’s ambition and says he should learn Carnatic music in a government college and become a teacher in a corporation school. The line stings like a… whiplash. This is a sad reality for many non-Brahmin Carnatic-music aspirants, who find doors closed to them. (Accordingly, the scenes where Peter strives to become Vembu Iyer’s disciple play out on either side of a giant gate.) But the “untouchability” is worse in Peter’s village, where he is served tea in a separate glass. Menon’s point is simple — though controversial amidst the voices of Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj and even TM Krishna. In music (or at least in the case of Vembu Iyer), Menon says, there is no us-versus-them. Nandu, a TamBrahm who lives in the US and who has moved to Chennai to learn under Vembu Iyer, is similarly uncaring about caste. He becomes buddies with Peter the way two students under the same eccentric teacher would. The cracks in their friendship, later on, arise from Nandu’s ambition, and not from a consideration of Peter’s caste.
The first hour or so of Sarvam Thaala Mayam is easily Rajiv Menon’s finest work as a filmmaker. (AR Rahman, though, has had finer outings with this filmmaker.) The lines are snappy — they make you smile. When Mani mocks Peter about not knowing a thing about thaalam, Peter says Mani doesn’t know much about mridangam-making either. The scene segues are beautiful (they don’t end on a convenient “high”), and the story progresses in a lovely, low-key manner. The relationship between Peter and Sara (Aparna Balamurali) is not the romance we know from our movies. They are neither lovers nor boyfriend-girlfriend — just two young people drawn to each other, and struggling with ambitions of their own.
Some more detailing would have helped. The film’s conceit is that seeing Vembu Iyer play is enough to make Peter obsessed about mastering the mridangam — but this also involves adopting a very different way of life. It would have been interesting to see Peter resist some of the more Brahminical aspects of the Vembu Iyer household. The film surrounds Peter with things that might be new to him — a verse from the Thirupavai, a namavali, a Rudraksham bead, an Avani Avittam ceremony, the avoidance of liquor and non-vegetarian food — and yet, not once do we see him question these things, or maybe even mock them in the presence of his friends. (He’s young. Surely he’s bound to find some of these traditions ridiculous, as at least some of us do!) When different ways of life collide, some amount of compromise becomes necessary. In Vedham Pudhidhu, the Sathyaraj character, a Thevar, gives up meat when he unofficially adopts a Brahmin boy. Here, we don’t see what changes (if any) Peter has made to his life, and how he feels about these changes. In short, we don’t see Peter as a “character”.
It’s a modern-day update of the story of the Dalit saint Nandanar. (Peter is thus an “archetype”). Like Nandanar, Peter is barred from entering a temple. Like Nandanar’s clan, Peter’s family makes drums using animal skin. Like Nandanar, who was obsessed with something “unattainable” (worshipping Shiva in a temple), Peter, too, aims for something unusual.
But this doesn’t derail the film because, unlike Vedham Pudhidhu, it isn’t solely about caste but also about the pursuit of art. It’s a modern-day update of the story of the Dalit saint Nandanar. (Peter is thus an “archetype”). Like Nandanar, Peter is barred from entering a temple. Like Nandanar’s clan, Peter’s family makes drums using animal skin. Like Nandanar, who was obsessed with something “unattainable” (worshipping Shiva in a temple), Peter, too, aims for something unusual. If Gopalakrishna Bharathi’s opera based on Nandanar’s life gave us the exquisite Varugalaamo, we get a magnificent song here (composed by Rajiv Menon) that goes Varalaama!
And like Nandanar’s story, Peter’s is a cry for equality. Johnson was content with his lot. He has been awarded the Kalaimamani, but he never pursued a musical career because making the instruments was what gave him a living. But Peter is different. In Sarvam Thaala Mayam, a Dalit boy breaks free of (Brahminical) norms and traditions in music. He climbs out of the (Brahminical) well that many see Carnatic music as, and gazes at the bigger world outside. And he uses this exposure to reconfigure the DNA of this music, so to speak. And in this ideal (even idealistic) world, change comes from within the Establishment, too. Shantha Dhananjayan has a lovely cameo as Vembu Iyer’s wife. In her big scene, she rebukes her husband for being a stick in the mud. He resents it. He smiles. He changes.
This simple, old-fashioned, feel-good, aspirational, make-the-world-a-better-place quality tides the film over the very “cinematic” passages involving a television reality show. The garish costumes and sets and conniving judges are a hoot — this is a pitch-perfect recreation of the shows we see on TV. But the screechy drama — violence, a court case, an opportunistic politician, the return of Mani (with his “villi” of a sister, played by Divyadarshini with lip-smacking relish) — is a stark contrast to the whisper of the early portions. The climax occurs along expected lines (though we don’t get a moment between Peter and his father, which I would have liked). But you leave the theatre with the high that a boy who failed his Accountancy paper has mastered thaalam-s that involve complex calculations. It’s not about education. It’s about talent, which is beyond class and caste. Some viewers may think of this film as a fairy tale, but it is nice to know that Peter made music happily ever after.